Danny, the Champion of the World
By Roald Dahl
Jill Bennett, or in some editions, Quentin Blake
Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1975
Danny, the Champion of the World is a children's novel set in the mid-1970s in rural England. It has no magical or fantastical events, but still manages to be an exciting adventure story with a surreal edge. It is based on his ealier short story Champion of the World which appeared in the collection of short stories for adults, Claud's Dog.
This is the story of Danny's childhood, as retold when he is much older (presumably an adult). His mother died when he was four months old, and he was raised by his father, who owns a small gas station / mechanic's shop outside of a small English town. They live in an old gypsy caravan (now immobile), and spend a lot of time exploring the nearby woods and fields. Danny's father teaches him all about automobiles, and even holds him out of school until he has learned how to rebuild an engine on his own (which is when he is seven years old). But his father is also well-versed in natural history, all sorts of handy work (including building kites and other fun contraptions), and, as it turns out, larceny.
While this is very much a childhood memoir of the most engaging sort, the central event of the book involves an old family tradition: the poaching of pheasants. When Danny is old enough to be left alone on his own, his father starts going out to hunt pheasants from the local evil landowner, Mr. Hazell, a vile man from whom the locals poach just for the pleasure of annoying him. But while Danny's father has been out of the poaching loop, Mr. Hazell has grown even more vile, and has started building deep trapping pits to catch the poachers. Danny's father falls into one, badly breaking his leg.
The remainder of the novel is focused on Danny's plan to get vengeance on Mr. Hazell, with the support and encouragement of his father. We learn a lot about different methods of poaching pheasants, and a good time is had by all.
This is a really good book. It is perhaps particularly a good read-aloud book, due to English and/or outdated words and concepts that may not be familiar to young readers, but as it is intended to be an tale of a childhood past the outdated setting does not mean and outdated tale. As with many of Dahl's books, the moral framework is not necessarily sound, but it certainly is fun.
This book is also notable for the appearance of The BFG as a charming bedtime story. In 1982 Dahl would expand this into an entire novel. As an adult, I believe that The BFG is more pleasing in the (much) shorter version, but as a child I enjoyed both novels equally. (Farting as a plot point holds up a lot better when you are in second grade).
Jill Bennett is an excellent illustrator, although her simple, cutesy line drawings are perhaps closer to what the modern reader would expect to find in a book for kindergartners. The characters have slightly overlarge heads and slightly exaggerated expressions that remind me of Eloise Wilkin (of Little Golden Book fame). They are however, very detailed and well planned in content and placement within the book. Moreover, she has created my favorite ever drawing of the BFG, as a lanky old gentleman with a tremendously long flowing beard, seen running through the twilight. Many later editions are illustrated by Quentin Blake, who illustrated most of Dahl's children's books. This is a Very Good Thing, but means that the only sane course of action is to buy both editions of the book.
Accelerated reader level: 4.7